Screening and Reflecting on the film on the Rohingya communities: ‘The Ice Cream Sellers’ (2021)

Sep 29, 2023 | Postgraduate, Transformations (Issue 10)

Sohel Rahman

Professor Nayanika Mookherjee (Anthropology, Co-Director, IAS)
In 2021, the United Nations declared it was the International Year of Peace and Trust (IYPT) to reaffirm the UN’s role to settle disputes peacefully. Durham University also had a set of PhD studentships based on that theme given the strength of the UN Sustainable Goal 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions). Across the University we had four such studentships and I am fortunate to be on the supervisory team of Fiona Macgregor who is being supervised by Professor Catherine O’ Rourke in Law, with myself and Professor Roger MacGinty (DGSI) being the co-supervisors. In planning events with the Faculty Dean Professor Charlotte Clark which would bring these cross-faculty projects together,  I proposed to bring to Durham the film The Ice Cream Sellers made by a young Bangladeshi filmmaker Sohel Rahman who shot it in the Rohingya Camps in Bangladesh. Since 2017, over 800,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the Myanmar government’s persecution based on contestations related to their ethnic identities and claims within Myanmar. They have escaped to south-eastern Bangladesh and have been put in crowded camps, which have led to local tensions. The Bangladesh government has not signed the Refugee Convention and does not accord the Rohingya the rights of refugees. I first saw the rough cuts of this film a few years ago when Sohel wanted feedback on the film and the powerful imagery of camp life stayed with me. To quote a Rohingya man in this film, he says: If Bangladesh and the rest of the world agree to deport us to Burma, we would say; “kill us with a huge missile, we would at least get funeral.” Alongside the indeterminate futures of the Rohingya communities and against the backdrop of the yellow, sandy aridness of the camp, the pleasureable vividness of the pink balloons, plastic combs and earrings, the joyousness of having an icecream or ensuring the price of melted icecreams are reduced in the midst of camplife; the UNHCR buckets and bags, the rice, the toys and songs also stays with us. Powerfully, as the children wonder about their mango trees and as to what might be happening to the mangoes, the quotidian poignancy and loss resonates with us as viewers. The various commentaries below by the panellists, researching on various related themes tenderly captures this. Supported by the Institute of Advanced Study, Anthropology, Durham Global Security Institute, Faculty of Social Science and Health the film highlights the role of the arts and film in highlighting the lives of those affected by genocidal regimes and practices. Following Hungarian writer Imre Kertesz, if the Holocaust brought with it a dread, a terrible dread of being forgotten, then literature and art had a crucial function to be the vessels of memory. Sandwiched between the Mayanmar and Bangladeshi government, the Rohingya condition is vividly portrayed by the film The Ice Cream Sellers which is that vessel of memory ensuring that the joys and sadness of the Rohingya communities are not consigned to oblivion within the realms of global consciousness. Finally, I am thankful for the support of the Vice Chancellor Professor Karen O’Brien and the Faculty Dean Professor Charlotte Clark’s presence and support for this event of visual storytelling.

Professor Elisabeth Kirtsoglou (Anthropology)
Today 10 million people around the world are stateless – that is, they are “persons who are not considered to be nationals by any State under the operation of its law”. As a result of being denied a nationality, stateless persons have difficulty accessing even the most basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. The case of the Rohingya is one of the largest protracted displacement situations in the world. Bangladesh hosts close to one million Rohingyas from Myanmar. Over nine hundred thousand of them – are hosted in 33 highly congested camps in Cox’ s Bazar District. The Rohingya have fled violence in Myanmar in successive waves of displacement since the early 1990s. The latest exodus began in August 2017, when violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, driving more than 742,000 to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Most arrived in the first three months of the crisis. An estimated 12,000 reached Bangladesh during the first half of 2018. The vast majority reaching Bangladesh are women and children, and more than 40 per cent are under age 12. Many others are elderly people requiring additional aid and protection.

In migration literatures there is a ‘saying’ that refugees are not just produced by wars but also in camps and in the legal limbo.  If you take the paradigmatic case of the Rohingya, response to their displacement takes mostly the form of ‘humanitarian aid’, which means that the Bangladeshi government and the international actors like the UNHCR remain focused on meeting ‘the most ‘urgent’ and basic humanitarian needs and on mitigating the impact of the seasonal monsoon rains. Refugee camps, like the one seen in ‘The Ice Cream Sellers’, are established as paradoxical sites where the state expresses ‘staged’ indifference to the displaced who are thus transformed from political entities into passive recipients of humanitarian assistance. The prevalence of humanitarian assistance as the one and only thing the displaced need at the time, in combination with notions of ‘crisis’ and ‘emergency’ are crucial in the depoliticisation of persons and their subjection to biopolitical governance. What is first proclaimed as a ‘crisis of arrivals’ is often transformed into a ‘crisis of reception’. Before long – in situations similar to the Rohingya around the world- the displaced are seen as a ‘security concern’, preventing public debate from concentrating on issues of citizenship, rights and international protection.

Saturated with an ethic and aesthetic of abandonment, refugee camps are assemblages of human and non-human entities, material and immaterial structures, which coagulate to compose states of exception, exclusion, desocialisation and institutionalisation. As the movie eloquently shows however, viewing camps as ‘non-places’ void of relational content is often not the ‘whole story’. Having conducted fieldwork in –admittedly smaller-scale- makeshift camps in Greece, I saw – just as we have seen in the movie – that camps can be also understood as multimodal spaces saturated with affect as a distributed property between persons, things, histories and experiences. If, instead of viewing the displaced as ‘patients’, we insist in viewing them also as ‘agents’ we can appreciate how the Rohingya (like other refugees around the world) persistently struggle to ‘fill’ the void of camps-as-non-places with relational content. Their unremitting efforts to produce social meaning –to continue with the thread of life– become evident through activities, such as ice-cream selling, or establishing a make-shift barber shop, or cooking and selling ‘street food’, making music and telling stories.

In the documentary film The Ice Cream Sellers we see two children who resist their condition of being locked in structures of waiting by setting goals. ‘Setting goals’ while in a camp, can therefore be seen as a future-making exercise. By generating future horizons, the Rohingya siblings attempt to defy the sovereign efforts to deny them a social existence.

From Left to Right: Ms Fiona McGregor, Dr Sadaf Noor Islam, Ms Tahura Enam Navile
– all researching on the Rohingya communities.

Ms Fiona Macgregor (Peace and Trust PhD student in the School of Law and Co-supervised by Anthropology, School of Government)
In 2017 a campaign of genocidal ethnic cleansing forced hundreds of thousands of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims to flee over the border into Bangladesh. The stories they told of murder, rape and torture perpetrated against them and their families horrified the world. Almost six years after those events, around 1 million Rohingya remain in Bangladesh, trapped in desperately overcrowded refugee camps where they are denied many of their basic human rights, including to adequate food and shelter, with little hope of a safe return to their homeland in the foreseeable future.

It is into this dusty and grim landscape that documentary-maker Sohel Rahman brings viewers in his surprisingly optimistic film The Ice Cream Sellers. The story follows two young siblings who have set up a small business selling cheap ice-cream to other refugees in the hope of earning enough money to secure their father’s release from detention in Myanmar. Rahman does not shy from the ongoing impact of the brutality inflicted on the Rohingya. He captures moments of desperate grief and accounts of personal tragedy that are profoundly moving. Yet the film’s deeper impact lies in his depiction of the children’s daily lives as, despite the deprivations inflicted upon them, they find the power within themselves to come up with a plan to free their father and then work to secure that.

That their plan has little chance of succeeding might be sadly obvious to viewers. Yet, like the tantalisingly colourful balloons sold around the camps which are, as the film shows, unaffordable to many refugee families, things can be beautiful even when out of reach.  In a world which has robbed them of everything most people take for granted, the young ice-cream sellers have found some small autonomy in their money-raising efforts and in their hopes and dreams of being reunited with their father. The suffering of the Rohingya people and the conditions in which they are forced to live may be barely imaginable for many people, but the children’s belief that “everything will be ok” once they get their dad back is a theme that transcends culture or country and is one that most of us can relate to at some level.

The Ice Cream Sellers shows us the power of hope even in the most desperate of circumstances.  That those circumstances are the result of political decision making and prejudice is something viewers can consider for themselves. This film is a gentle-but-powerful reminder that at the heart of any refugee “crisis” are suffering human beings who, like the young ice cream sellers, are doing their best to survive while trying to hold on to the hope that one day everything might be at-least-somewhat ok again.

Ms Tahura Enam Naville (PhD student in Anthropology)
The film, ‘The Ice Cream Sellers’ (2021) displayed the everyday camp experiences of Stateless Rohingya communities living in Bangladesh and also the landscape of largest refugee camp through beautiful visual representations. In this film, the director as story-teller followed the young ice cream sellers who sell ice cream in the camps, hoping to release their father from prison in Myanmar. This is a female-headed household where the mother cannot go out to work given, she has younger children to look after and given her husband is in prison in Myanmar. This could easily be misread as the need ‘to maintain Purdah and religious restrictions only for women to be indoors. This film showed these young siblings are working at an age when they are supposed to be in school. Bangladesh state however does not allow formal education for the Rohingya community with the fear they might ‘pass’ as Bengalis. So instead of the usual assimilationist policies by majoritarian governments, we find here the need to keep the minorities – here the Rohingyas – excluded as vulnerable minorities.  Also, some among the Rohingya community prefer religious education, or madrasa, for their children instead of NGO-run schools.

The young siblings were selling the ice cream in exchange for the rice they got from their World Food Program (WFP) ration card. This barter system is common in the camp. Sometimes, the Rohingya community sells or exchanges the UN ration of food for other commodities which they desire more. This film presented the emotional faces of the camp people while they were talking about their memories in Myanmar. Interviews in this film described how the stateless Rohingya communities became the victims of state exclusion policies in Myanmar and were called ‘illegal Bengalis’, where they had lived for generations. They were denied their fundamental rights as citizens, including education, ownership of property, religious practice, freedom of movement, and even vaccination of the children. Informants also narrated the horrible experience of Genocide in August 2017 with massive violence, killing and rape. Two informants in this film said that if they die in Bangladesh, they will at least get a Janaja (funeral in a religious way), but they will not go back to their motherland if fundamental human rights are not ensured. This film reveals how the Rohingya community spends their camp lives between their memories of the past and uncertain future. Still, life goes on in the camp, and the main characters-young ice cream sellers carry hope to free their father from the Myanmar prison.

Dr Sadaf Noor Islam (Postdoctoral scholar in Anthropology)
During the COVID-19 lockdown, while we were looking at mistrust in health services among Rohingya people in camps in Bangladesh as a part of our British Academy funded ongoing research, “Household Dynamics and Decision Making Under COVID-19,” (with Professor Nayanika Mookherjee as PI) one of the challenges I encountered was overcoming the inability to conduct the fieldwork physically. Since the time of classical empirical research in anthropology, ‘being in the field’ has been considered the most essential part of anthropological research. As we had to conduct the empirical research remotely, we acknowledged that ‘being in the field’ was missing in our study. To compensate for the limitations imposed by my physical absence in Rohingya camps, I broadened my research to incorporate visual materials such as documentaries, video clips, and news segments, in addition to engaging with written resources like academic writings, news articles, blogs, and social media postings on the Rohingya population. During that time, the director Sohel Rahman shared a rough cut of the film Icecream Sellers with Nayanika for our feedback and we both watched the film. The film, The Ice Cream Sellers, offered me an in-depth account of Rohingya people living in camps, as witnessed through the vantage point of the ice cream seller. As Sohel traversed the route that a 12-year-old ice cream vendor took in the camps, I found myself following them as an ethnographer to observe the lives of the Rohingya people residing within these camps. This observation provided me with valuable insights into the difficulties encountered by the community in complying with measures of “isolation” and COVID-related restrictions within the densely populated Rohingya camps. Looking at the close proximity of images of the Rohingya camp, one feels bewildered as to how COVID restrictions could be carried out there.

The issue concerning the Rohingya population is a complex and sensitive subject that requires a thorough analysis to ensure the portrayal of information t is ethically sound, factually correct, and empathetic to avoid perpetuating stereotypes, misrepresentations, and further marginalisation. One of the main challenges is refraining from stereotyping or oversimplification when addressing the experiences of the persecuted Rohingya community. Nevertheless, when the focus is primarily on employing vivid imagery or narratives to portray the Rohingya population’s real-life encounters, it tends to exploit the Rohingya people’s anguish through excessive exploitation. Sohel successfully surmounted this challenge of representing the trauma and lived reality of the Rohingya people while consciously avoiding sensationalism. On the one hand, we witnessed a grieving mother crying for her only son, who was killed by the Myanmar Army, evoking a deep emotional response within us. On the other hand, we observed the details of everyday life within the camp, which encompassed negotiations aimed at getting a good deal on buying ice cream, a group of joyful Rohingya children following a vendor of vividly coloured balloons, a young girl purchasing beauty products from the seller, and also two determined child ice cream sellers undertaking to increase ice cream sales to accumulate funds to release their father from jail. We observed the range of emotions and fullness of life exhibited within the camp community, encompassing trauma, sorrow, waiting, hope, joy, frustration, and the intricate dynamics of familial relationships. Sohel has demonstrated the capacity to discern that the Rohingya population comprises a diverse array of individuals with diverse identities, experiences, and circumstances. This recognition encompasses understanding how these various elements intersect and impact their lives within the refugee camps. The Ice Cream Sellers shows us that it is crucial to move beyond surface-level narratives and engage in nuanced storytelling that acknowledges the persecution faced by the Rohingya people while also emphasising their resilience in overcoming adversity, as exemplified by The Ice Cream Sellers. 

Ms Arwa Alzraiy and Ms Bhakti Khati

Ms Arwa Alzraiy (Peace and Trust PhD student in the School of Education)
The Ice Cream Sellers felt like an emotional and intellectual attack. And rightly so! Reading dry news report or watching vivid, short videos broadcasting highlights of the Rohingya camp, one is concerned with the crisis; watching an ethnographic representation of the ‘mundane’, the now-normal, day-to-day life the Rohingya refugees are living in the camps, one is driven to become the refugee. Even if it was a short, condensed and televised experience, the film still echoes great depths of the refugees’ plight. Little Asia and Ayas stand for millions of refugees in camps doing whatever it takes to claim their given basic rights whether that of ‘bailing’ a father out of prison, getting an education or simply imagining a future of their own making. Seeing these kids working relentlessly reminded me of my own grandmother, a refugee from Beer Shiva in Palestine, who was forced to work in fruit picking in farms with her mum for years to collect money and send her brother to pursue his education in Egypt. Today, I am a third-generation refugee student doing my PhD in Durham University and my sister is doing her MA in New York University. We have reached places our grandma never thought existed! Education offers astonishing opportunities for social, cultural or even intellectual mobilization. That said, it should never be the refugee’s individual responsibility to take on the world by themselves imagining their own futures as if their struggle is not tying them down in every way possible. Brilliant piece of cinematography! 

Ms Bhakti Khati (Peace and Trust PhD student in the Department of Psychology)
Humans are more inclined to help those whom they know and are more likely to help one person they know than a big group. This is known as the ‘identifiable victim effect’ and often you will see advertisements from various organisations portraying the hardships faced by one child affected by conflict in order to appeal to this human tendency and generate more donations and efforts towards the cause. However often these portrayals are of misery, to generate pity for those affected. This can often strip the victims of their dignity and shape a narrative of “we need to save these helpless humans”. The movie ‘The Ice Cream Sellers’ utilises the identifiable victim effect by sharing the story of two children growing up in the turbulent Rohingya refugee camps. But instead of focusing on creating a pity-the-victim narrative, the movie superbly captures the joy, beauty, and innocence of being a child despite the backdrop of conflict and hardships. Regardless of our backgrounds, we can all remember the joy of eating ice cream, of running around with our friends, and of playing with our toys. The movie, therefore, makes the victims identifiable but with their dignity intact. I highly recommend watching this movie!

Professor Roger Mac Ginty

Professor Roger Mac Ginty (Director, Durham Global Security Institute)
Sohel Rahman’s poignant film, The Ice Cream Sellers is an assault on the senses and emotions We can sense the heat, noise and toil and see the love, frustration and sorrow among the Rohingya refugees portrayed. “We are in a miserable condition”, says one of the interviewees early on. The film is an excellent primer on the United Nations seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The condition of the refugees, living in the planet’s largest refugee camp, shows the necessity of international and national actors taking decisive action on the SDGs such as addressing poverty, hunger, access to education, and gender equality. The film also shows us what the SDGs do not cover. Claustrophobic conditions in the camp remind us of the necessity of play and access to play equipment, of the need for space and dignity, and the need for privacy and occasional silence. Selling ice cream – a key part of the film – shows us the need to move beyond bare life. What becomes clear from the film is that the refugees are not just sitting about waiting for help. They have no choice but to “get on with it”. Whether it is the kids selling ice cream or other entrepreneurs, the film shows that refugees are not a lumpen mass of people waiting for what may come. Instead, this film was teeming with life, emotion, colour and humanity. It is highly recommended.

Professor Mookherjee with Director Sohel Rahman and panelists

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